Jeb fundraiser gets special guest: George W.
Jeb Bush knows he pays a price for his last name, so he might as well fully collect on its benefits too.
On Wednesday, the former Florida governor, who stresses in public appearances that he is his “own man,” heads to Dallas for his first fundraiser of the year with George W. Bush.
Dealing with his brother, the 43rd president, is one of the most difficult needles Jeb must thread as he prepares for a formal launch of his own presidential campaign in the coming months.
Insiders say Jeb’s team is still figuring out how to utilize George W. For now, aides are happy to maximize the advantages, particularly when it comes to raising money, getting outside advice from old administration hands and leveraging the Bush mystique to establish him as the frontrunner.
“I think George will be as helpful as he can possibly be and will do everything he can,” said Jim Francis, a longtime George W. confidante who chaired his two Texas gubernatorial campaigns. “But he also doesn’t want to be a distraction. So they’ll talk about it and see what makes sense.”
“In some ways, George W. Bush may be helpful, and it some ways we might not be,” Francis added. “But, the bottom line is, Jeb is going to sink or swim on his own.”
The former president’s public image has been rehabilitated somewhat since he left office seven years ago. Polls consistently show that George W. is more liked than his brother among conservatives, but he remains deeply polarizing to the electorate at large.
One Bush 43 alum advises not to expect the former president “out there in public too much, certainly not early on.”
“Fundraising is where he could help the most,” the former official said. “Not that Jeb needs that much help with it, given how well he’s done so far.”
But many tricky decisions await the campaign-in-waiting. If Jeb is the nominee, for example, what role will George W. play at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next July? He skipped Tampa in 2012, but it would look awkward if he stayed away his own brother’s coronation. If he attends, would he get a speaking slot? Would it be in primetime?
Sources in both camps said that the former president’s role is likely to evolve over time, depending on how the primary field shakes out and what polls show.
“The fact that he’s so well-known is an asset,” said former South Carolina GOP chairman Barry Wynn, a longtime Bush family ally who supports Jeb. “But there are some people who don’t want to look to the past; they want to look to the future. So he has to cross that hurdle, and I think he will.”
For those who have worked at senior levels for either Bush, the relationship between the two brothers is a very sensitive issue – and one, in most instances, they’d rather not discuss publicly.
Historians have often described the relationship as competitive. “While loving and supportive of each other, the two brothers do not talk that often, according to family intimates,” Peter Baker, a biographer of George W., reported in January for the New York Times.
George, now 68, headed off to boarding school while Jeb, six years younger, was still a little kid. He’s always been closer to his brother Marvin and sister Doro.
George is an extrovert with swagger and a Texas twang. Jeb, 62, is a self-described “introvert” who likes to project thoughtful bookishness.
Both ran for governor in 1994. Jeb had long been seen as the son most likely to succeed in politics, according to lore. But he lost in Florida while George won an upset in Texas.
Jeb won the first of two terms in the Sunshine State in 1998. He went all-in to help his brother carry the state in 2000, including during the contentious recount.
George W. has put the ball in his brother’s court when it comes to how he’ll be deployed.
“I’ll do whatever he wants,” he told CBS in December. “If he wants me out there publicly, I’ll be out there publicly. If he wants me behind the scenes, I’ll be behind the scenes.”
For his part, Jeb is asked about his family at almost every stop on the campaign trail. He usually gives a variation of the same answer: he loves his brother, but he’s his own man. At the Detroit Economic Club last month, he acknowledged that running as a Bush presents “an interesting challenge.”
“If I have any degree of self-awareness, this would be the place where it might want to be applied,” he said. “I love my brother. I think he’s been a great president. It doesn’t bother me a bit to be proud of them and love them, but I know for a fact that if I’m going to be successful … then I’m going to have to do it on my own.”
Other times, Jeb has pushed back forcefully on efforts to put him on the couch. “As in everybody’s family, we’re all a little different,” Jeb Bush said in Nevada earlier this month. “I have my own life experience.”
When someone in the Las Vegas audience asked how he’d separate himself from his father and brother, Jeb said it would be through the power of his fresh ideas. “Do you have brothers and sisters?” he asked the questioner. “Are you exactly the same?”
Wednesday’s Dallas fundraiser is at the home of financial services executive Gerald J. Ford, who paid $20 million for the stadium at Southern Methodist University to bear his name. SMU is Laura Bush’s alma mater and the site of George W.’s presidential library. There will be a roundtable discussion and a VIP reception. The invitation asked for personal donations or commitments to bundle $100,000 per couple; proceeds benefit Right to Rise, Jeb’s super PAC.
This is the final full week before the end of the first fundraising quarter.
The invitation for the Wednesday event includes 50 co-hosts. The Dallas Morning News, which first reported that George W. will be the special guest, said the list includes many pillars of the party establishment in Texas, including real estate developer Woody Hunt, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, former ambassador to Switzerland Pam Willeford, homebuilder David Weekley, beer distributor John Nau and former Rep. Tom Loeffler.
The significant show of force comes just days after the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, became the first major candidate to formally enter the race. Cruz worked on W.’s 2000 presidential campaign in a junior role.
Rick Perry, preparing for another try at the White House, was Bush’s lieutenant governor but has fallen out with the family over the years, especially after he criticized W’s record as president. George H.W. Bush even endorsed then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in her failed 2010 primary challenge to Perry. Hutchison is listed as a host for Wednesday’s fundraiser. Nau, Weekley and others on the host committee were previously major Perry donors, the Morning News noted.
Jeb, of course, has his own roots in Texas. He was born in Midland and went to college in Austin. His 38-year-old son, George P., was elected Texas land commissioner in November. But none of this compares to the network that George W. grew and cultivated during his ascent to the pinnacle of power.
Al Cardenas, a longtime political associate and Florida friend of Jeb’s, said that the governor is delighted that his father, brother and son are helping out. But he suggested that many of these donors would back Jeb regardless of whether George W. showed up to the fundraiser or not.
Cardenas said it is still “very cool” for the governor to spend time with family on the short trip. “I mean it doesn’t get much better than that from a purely personal point of view,” he said. “Pride in his son’s own accomplishments; seeing the glow in his dad’s eyes as he undertakes the challenge; and hanging out with his older brother is unforgettable and precious for Jeb.”
“So, yes, very fulfilling personally,” he added. “I am not too sure you can describe it as a politically significant factor.”
George W. has kept a relatively low profile on the campaign finance circuit since leaving office. He has not lent his name to many political events. Part of that has been to help establish an image as an above-the-fray statesman; he’s carefully avoided criticizing President Barack Obama. But associates say another consideration has been fundraising for his foundation and library, which opened two years ago in Dallas. The ex-president was reluctant to cannibalize his own donor network or hit up his biggest supporters too much to help non-Bush candidates. Now that these entities are humming along, he has more bandwidth.
George W. could also potentially help woo the Republican grassroots, pollsters agree, but he remains a liability in a general election.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month of likely Iowa caucus-goers found Jeb viewed favorably by 41 percent and unfavorably by 40 percent. Yet 80 percent viewed George W.’s presidency favorably.
The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that 35 percent of Americans overall view him positively, while 39 percent see him negatively. That’s down from 58 percent who viewed him negatively in January 2009.
But there were some ominous numbers in Quinnipiac polls of swing states conducted last month. More than one-third of registered voters in Colorado, Iowa and Virginia said the Bush name makes them less likely to support Jeb.
“Many voters don’t like him coming from a family of presidents,” pollster Peter Brown said as he released the numbers.
Iraq and Afghanistan, which both continue to be in the news, are key elements of George W.’s legacy. Jeb rolled out a list of nearly two dozen foreign policy advisers last month that included a mix of key players in his brother and father’s administrations, leading to speculation about whether he is more of a clear-eyed realist like his father, or a democracy-promoting idealist like his brother, when it comes to the U.S. mission overseas.
Jeb has tried to chart his own course here as well. Asked in January how he would have handled Iraq differently, Bush told reporters: “I won’t talk about the past; I’ll talk about the future.”
A few weeks later, it was clear his team recognized they had to deal with the elephant in the room. “There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure,” Jeb said in Chicago, lamenting intelligence that turned out ”not to be accurate” and saying that more should have been to create “an environment of security” after Saddam Hussein was deposed.
But in the same speech, Jeb praised his brother’s controversial 2007 “surge” of troops into the country – describing it as one of ”the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done because there was no support for it, and it was hugely successful.”
Aside from George W., other members of the family have also gotten fully on board. Barbara Bush, who famously said in 2013 that “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the Oval Office, has now publicly taken it back. She signed a fundraising email for her son last week.
On Thursday night, she and George H.W. Bush will appear at a Jeb fundraiser in Houston. The elder Bush, now 90 and prevented from walking due to health issues, has become an increasingly beloved figure in the 22 years since leaving the presidency.
Asked what role the family will play in 2016, Jeb spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said: “Governor Bush is really thankful for the tremendous support of his dad, his brother and his entire family as he considers whether or not go forward with a potential campaign.”